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Breastfeeding: the contradictions of 'successful' and 'unsuccessful' feeding relationships

by Eireann (follow)
There has been a lot of excitement (mostly of the negative kind in my circles) about the latest formula ad to appear on the scene. You know the one - 'end the mummy wars' ? It's good for a laugh, well I certainly thought so when I watched it. Then I didn't think twice about it.... until the next day, when it had aggravated vast quantities of people everywhere on Facebook.

'Not another article on that ad!!' I hear you groan. Not to worry, however, as I'm simply telling you about what got me thinking about this today. Now to me, this ad was amusing and then I forgot it. It didn't really mean much to me and I wasn't really looking for any hidden messages or the like. However, today I was speaking to a good friend of mine who made the point that there is a subtle (or not so subtle) undermining of the concept/reality of breastfeeding relationships in that ad. Why? Well, it IS an ad for formula after all. They are trying to sell their product. We don't have to like it and we may disagree with the way they try to sell, but we understand at the same time that the people who make these products are trying to sell them.

This got me thinking about the other ways that both breastfeeding (in particular) and formula feeding are negatively affected. Firstly, let there be no doubt: I definitely believe that breastmilk is the number one optimal nutritional substance that there is for feeding a baby. No question! And breastfeeding can be super amazing and awesome and special for some mother/child relationships - and not, for some others. You really can't beat breastmilk anytime on a nutritional basis. At ALL.

breastfeeding diagram
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

However, something that I have thought a lot about through the two feeding relationships that I had with my daughters (youngest 9 months) was, what really makes a breastfeeding relationship 'successful?'

If a breastfeeding relationship being successful is defined as 'breastfeeding until both mother and baby are ready to cease,' then I did not have successful breastfeeding relationships with either of my children. This aim is strong in my mind as being the ideal goal for breastfeeding, especially because my mother nursed both my brother and I for 2.5 years with no issues. I never dreamt that I would have the struggles and the tears over breastfeeding that I did. When I was pregnant the first time, I used to wonder why it was so difficult for other mums to breastfeed when it seemed so straightforward. Now that I have had two 'unsuccessful' breastfeeding relationships I wonder instead why it was so hard for me when I was trying with all my strength to make things work.

Is 'unsuccessful' defined as breastfeeding that is peppered with latching challenges and painful feeding and mastitis?? Or is it breastfeeding that is abandoned after weeks or even just days because of unexplained, heinously painful feeding? Or is it breastfeeding that is never attempted because a mother in uncomfortable with the stigma that is often attached to 'exposing' a breast to feed her baby?
How do you define 'unsuccessful' in a breastfeeding context?

breastfeeding diagram
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I have struggled so hard with the emotional fallout that comes with what initially feels like you and your body failing your baby. Feeding my first daughter was like slowly drowning in a pit of fire. Every feed distressed me, and her, and my nipples cracked and the top layer peeled away leaving them worse than before. I could have bought shares in Lansinoh - but I never got to a point where feeding was even remotely ok and the entire experience left me very anxious and depressed. When I finally got to the point where I was sobbing to my mother over the phone that I didn't think I would survive another feed, I felt like the world was ending. I had wanted to breastfeed so badly and I had just spent the whole 4.5 months of my daughter's life crying my eyes out at every feed. It was devastating. Buying formula felt terrible. I didn't know about donor milk then. I wish that I had.

breastfeeding diagram
Yes I did include a picture of Lansinoh. It is awesome. Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Anyway, after I had been bottle feeding her for about a month, I started to realise that I felt so much more relaxed, less anxious, and best of all, able to just be with my baby and smile at her and cuddle her while feeding her. It was so good being able to be with her like that.

My second baby should have been an awesome breastfeeder. She latched so beautifully, fed long and often, and gained weight like a crazy thing (no weight loss in first week after birth, 800grams gain in her second week). But, at 4 months, my milk suddenly vanished, and it was like, they never got full again even once. Not even ONCE. Within two days I couldn't express even so much as a drop. Revisiting formula again was very upsetting but I had firmly resolved not to go back to that private hell from the last time. I couldn't let my husband touch my breasts at ALL for a month afterwards though, I was just so upset about it ending when I wasn't ready.

The thing is, to me, both of those feeding journeys were unsuccessful, in terms of breastfeeding specifically. But many others might say, 'oh, you made it to 4 months, that's not unsuccessful!' and hug me, and mean it. And I'm totally fine with that because the point is, everyone's definition of successful is different. Are you a bad parent if you formula feed your baby? No. Are you a bad parent if you sometimes give a top up bottle every now and then?? No! Of course, if you do introduce formula to a current breastfeeding relationship, you do run the risk of it affecting that relationship. But on the other hand if it works for you and you experience no issues with mix feeding, then why not?

Breastfeeding is AWESOME. Really! The fact that we can do it (most of us) is just amazing! And after all it is free and nutritionally incredible. And if you can do it all, for even just a few days, that is a great thing you have given to your baby. The longer you can, the better it is! But don't confuse the cessation (whether willingly or not) of a breastfeeding journey with being a bad or neglectful parent! We are all trying to be the best parents we can - and we certainly could do with a lot more support for breastfeeding than we do get. I didn't get support of the right kind with my first, and with my second it was completely mysterious. Would you have called me a bad mother because I ended up formula feeding both my babies? I sincerely hope not!

Be kind to yourselves. Do the best that you can. Love your babies. Cuddle them a lot. Give them plenty of kisses. And keep on keeping on!
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